Wednesday, 23 September 2009

origin of the word scientist

Robyn Williams, on The Science Show, was recently in Britain talking to scientists in Guilford, in Surrey, at The British Festival of Science. He said this festival has been going for about 180 years.

I was interested to hear him say it was here that the word scientist was first coined, in 1833.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that William Whewell (1794-1866), who originated the word scientist, was an influential thinker, respected by the major scientists of his day, so much so that he was frequently asked to invent new words.
Whewell invented the terms “anode,” “cathode,” and “ion” for Faraday. Upon the request of the poet Coleridge in 1833 Whewell invented the English word “scientist;” before this time the only terms in use were “natural philosopher” and “man of science.”
Wondering why it took a poet to request a new term, I looked at a short piece by John H. Lienhard of the University of Houston. It's a brief discussion of the influence the Romantic Poets had on the science of the 19th Century. In part, he says:
When those 19th-century thinkers attacked Rationalism, their impact on the world of making and doing was profound. Science went into retreat while a technology like none ever known rose up in England. Machines, of course, are the first fruit of the human mind. Before a machine can be built in the world, it must be built in the mind. It is a synthetic reality. Technology acts out the Romantic vision.

I must say, to me it's poetry in motion to see a passenger jet streak across the sky, or to listen to the rumble of traffic across the old stone bridge over the Darebin Creek.

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